Project HALO Status Report

Sky Launch 2, Attempt 1 -- Balloon Launch Mishap

Held on Saturday, June 20, 1998 on a NASA barge in the Gulf of Mexico.

The following text was taken, with permission, from an article by Ronnie Lajoie, HALO SL-2 Press Site Manager, which was published in the July-August 1998 issue of the Southeastern Space Supporter, newsletter of HAL5.

Fun on Dauphin Island

With limited room on the barge, many of the HALO team, as well as most members of the Press and visitors, could not be present to witness the SL-2 flight.  Months before the mission, we began looking for a suitable “shore site” in which to place a backup ground station and to serve as the Press Site.

The Search for a Press Site

The Alabama School of Science and Mathematics, located in downtown Mobile, offered use of their facilities for our site, and loaned us a student experiment as well.  Problems of radio interference however, forced us to find another site.

The Gulf Coast Amateur Television Society (GCATS), part of the Mobile Amateur Radio Club (MARC), came to our rescue.  GCATS President Danny Carpenter and member Gerry Regan, arranged for us to use a classroom at the Sea Lab on Dauphin Island, just off the Alabama coast.

Danny and I (plus Greg and Bill Brown) exchanged many email messages to coordinate the site and to make sure it would serve our needs.  It sounded ideal.  A good view of the beach, air-conditioning, phone lines, electricity, tables, chairs, and especially rest rooms.  It sounded so good that the Barge Team (who knew no such accommodations were on the barge) started to give me friendly grief.

Once the Barge Team was on its way, I could finally focus on getting the HALO SL-2 press kit designed and printed, and on sending out information to the waiting Press.  Bill Axenroth telephoned and asked if he could help, and in the next half hour he volunteered to carry all the Press Site supplies in his van and do the driving.  That gave me Thursday night to get the press kits copied and get some sleep.

Friday Setup at Sea Lab

Bill and I arrived in Mobile about 1 PM.  We stopped at the Day’s Inn in Tillman’s Corner, south of Mobile, to check in and drop off our suitcases.  We then picked at Gladys Young and headed for Dauphin Island.

It was a beautiful travel day (just hot), and it was great to look out over the blue water towards Dauphin Island.  I had never been south of Birmingham by car before, so seeing the Gulf of Mexico was a real treat for me.  I was amazed by the line of telephone poles sticking up through the shallow waters to bring power and telephone service to the island.

The three of us approached the Sea Lab about 1:30 PM, only a half hour behind schedule.  The GCATS volunteers were already there and starting to setup their equipment.  Wade Dorland and Ron Creel (who we had not seen since the SL-1 mission) were there as well.  Philomena Grodzka and Garrett Roberts, and Mark and Judy Wells, arrived soon afterwards.  After the ritual of greetings and introductions, we got down to work. Ron and Wade had already scoped the room, and we quickly came up with a layout that would satisfy the needs of both the ground station and the Press Site (see photo on page TBD).  We placed a row of the narrow tables along the window-side wall for the amateur radio equipment, televisions, and VCRs; that way all the wiring would be behind the tables and out of reach of feet.

Another table was placed near the room entrance, so that members of the Press and other visitors could pick up a copy of the HALO press kit as they walked in.  Bill and Ron Creel assembled the paper part of the press kits, while Garrett prepared the photo insert part for the VIP versions of the HALO press kits.

Because the tables were narrow, we needed to double many up.  Two double-tables were allocated for the HALO exhibit, which was setup in the corner so that visitors would spot it as they walked into the room.  In addition to the exhibit itself, we placed sample HALO hardware, the photo albums, and other past HALO material on the tables.

One double-table was used for HAL5 materials, including to-be-sold HALO T-shirts and Ad Astra magazines, as well as the new HAL5 brochure designed by Philomena.  Since attendance was light, no products were sold, but some were given away to volunteers.  The table was also used to display STEDTRAIN brochures brought by Philomena.

Another double-table was set aside to be used for serving refreshments the next morning.  Those would include coffee and doughnuts, plus tea and cookies.  Soft drinks were available from a nearby vending machine.

One larger table we found in the closet was used to setup my computer and printer.  We set that up at the door-end of the window-side wall, so it would be out of the way of visitor traffic.

Since it was a classroom, that left a lot of chairs.  Most of them were placed in a long row in the center of room, faced so that Press and visitors could watch the monitors showing live video from the balloon gondola and rocket.  The rest were put against the back wall.

With so many helpers, setup went very quickly and was an enjoyable experience -- as I had hoped.  One of the promises I gave to my team was that, if we had enough volunteers, we could relax and enjoy ourselves -- something we all deserved after the last 3 frantic weeks.

Friday Night Lightning Show

With setup complete, the Press Site team was ready for dinner.  The GCATS crew were still setting up and told us to go on ahead.  They recommended a restaurant called Rousso’s in downtown Mobile.  Ron Creel opted to stay on the island for the night, and said he would eat locally.

The rest of us first headed back to our hotels in Tillman’s Corner, then headed for Rousso’s.  The food was as delicious as promised, and as pricy as foretold.

In the cooler air of night, we all took time to look up at the night sky.  A barrage of lightning (but no thunder) filled the skies to the east.  We looked with concern to the southwest, towards our comrades out on a barge in the Gulf, but saw no sign of stormy weather.  We all prayed that it would avoid them.

After shopping for refreshments for the morning, we went to bed so that we could get up early the next morning.  During the night, I was surprised to get a cell phone call Greg Allison on the barge, who was mad as hell that he could not reach any of us until then.  I apologized and told him that our planned two phone line system at Sea Lab had gone down to just one -- and no phone.  I checked the phone in the hotel, but the phone line was bolted into the phone.  No way to borrow this one.

Greg told me that the barge was heading south to avoid the storms, and that this maneuver might delay the start of launch operations.  He was very concerned that he did not know the location of the recovery boat, or even it had set sail.  Gladys had been getting similar calls from Greg, and had talked with Danny Carpenter.  Between the three of us, we got Greg the information he needed.

Live from Dauphin Island!

The next morning, we woke early so that we could get to Dauphin Island by 5:30 and open the doors by 6:00 AM.  That would give us one hour before the planned launch time of 7:00 AM.  The Day’s Inn had been kind enough to set out breakfast early for us.  We arrived a little after 6:00 AM, but still in plenty of time to prepare for the launch.  The honorable GCATS crew were already there checking out their equipment.

Local Mobile CBS-TV affiliate WKRG showed up around 6:30 AM, including reporter Angela Poe and cameraman Tim Williams.  Angela told us we would be featured live -- yes, live! -- as part of their Saturday news morning show.  We did several 5-minute spots, and I was interviewed several times.  I spoke about the purpose of Project HALO and the goals of this mission.  We all hoped to see live video from the balloon any minute.

In between interviews, I sent updates to the HALO SL-2 Web site.  The first report, at 7:13 AM, said only “Standing by for balloon launch.  All systems are go!”.  By 7:38, I was still saying “Still standing by for balloon launch.”  By now, both the crew and the Press were getting antsy, wondering when we would see signs of activity on the monitors.

At 8:07 AM, an hour after planned launch time, we received word from Bill Brown that the barge had encountered a squall the night before, and that balloon operations were delayed.  The estimated launch time was now around 10:30 AM.  CBS-TV had to leave, and we thanked them for their visit.  Some people decided to go get breakfast.

The Long Wait

During the wait, I asked Garrett to call the local TV stations and newspaper and get more members of the Press out here.  Meanwhile I was recruited to help estimate the flight path of the balloon and thus the coordinates for the recovery boat.  With the stormy weather last night, the midnight wind data on the Web was useless, and I had a hard time finding wind data I could trust.

10:30 AM came and went.  By 11:02, I was back to posting “Still standing by for balloon launch” on the Web site.  By 11:32 AM, I was adding “No news from the barge (hopefully no news is GOOD news).”  What was happening???

Meanwhile, Garrett had been successful in getting newspaper reporter Dan Cusick from the Mobile Register, and TV reporter Chris Hatch from NBC-TV affiliate WPMI-15 and his cameraman Lloyd Heard.  During the long wait, both Dan and Chris got their fill of news and background pieces for their reports.  The cameras and VCRs were ready, the crowd was waiting.  Let’s GO!

What’s Wrong with the Video Signal?

At 11:36 AM, we started to see signs of activity on the gondola video monitor.  Something was happening, but the signal was so fuzzy we could not tell what.  We wondered aloud if our reception was so good that we were actually picking up faint signals from the barge prior to liftoff.

By 11:45 AM, with a snowy image of a balloon swaying back and forth on the monitor, we convinced ourselves that the balloon had been launched.  We report as much and attempt to make out the images, while the GCATS crew adjusted the antennas in an attempt to improve the reception.  (Little did we know that the gondola antenna had been severely damaged, and that we actually had better reception than the Barge Team!)

By 12:20 PM, the reception was getting clearer, and we could make out the gondola canister and pole hanging below the balloon.  Since it was high noon, the sun was directly overheard, which added to the poor reception.  What we could not tell for sure was whether or not the rocket was attached to the launch pole.  It did not appeared to be there, but it was possible that it was just hidden in the snowy transmission.

At 12:36 PM, someone said they spotted sunlight glinting off the three fins, and I went ahead and reported that the rocket was on board.  We were getting no signal at all -- not even snow, from the rocket however.  This was certainly not the show we had been promised.  We began to wonder if the nearby trees were blocking the signal.

By 12:50 PM, the gondola video started getting worse, and came in sporadically from then on until 1:10 PM.

At 1:18 PM, we finally received news from the barge.  Bill Brown reported that the balloon had already popped and the gondola had splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico.  He also reported that the barge was circling the gondola, from which we wrongly deduced that the barge would retrieve it.  We thus sent a radio message to recovery boat Captain Scarborough to head back to shore.

Bill also reported the embarrassing news that the rocket was still on board the barge, having fallen off its hook during launch operations.  The good news was that the rocket never touched water and looked repairable.  My last Web update for the day started with “Embarrassing, but not disaster!” which would end up in an AP wire report.

After a few final interviews with the Press, the last of the reporters and visitors left.  By 1:30 PM, the show was over.

Taking Down the Show

With the event clearly over, the GCATS volunteers were eager to take down the equipment and go home.  Meanwhile, the Press Site team was hungry and long past ready for lunch.  I asked Danny to leave me an active phone line so that I could finish updating the HALO Web site upon my return from lunch.  He agreed.

The Press Site team had lunch at the restaurant Delchamps on the island.  Just as we were arriving, we caught Philomena, Garrett, and Bill on their way back from a late breakfast.  They turned around and joined us for lunch.  I had a delicious crab-cake sandwich.

Upon our return to the Sea Lab, we found the room empty except for the HALO Press Site supplies, neatly packed away by a dedicated Wade Dorland, and just my computer left active -- but with no phone line!  After fretting for a few minutes, my colleges helped to convince me that I could hook it up back at the hotel.  The group wanted to leave.

We said our good-byes to Ron Creel and to Gerald Regan, the GCATS volunteer who worked at Sea Lab and arranged for our loan of one of the buildings.  Then we returned back to Tillman’s Corner.

I remembered from the morning that the phone itself was hardwired into the phone line.  So instead I looked behind the bed to unplug the phone line from the wall outlet.  No wall outlet.  Just a hole in the wall for the phone line to pass through.  Obviously an anti-theft measure.  Now what was I going to do?

I had left the readers of the SL-2 Web page hanging literally in mid-sentence, because I was in the middle of revising a copied paragraph when the local NBC affiliate needed to conduct a post-mission interview.  (I later got home to find frantic messages from readers who did not know what happened, including one from Tim Pickens’ father Herman, who did not know if he son was okay or not -- neither did we at the Press site.  Bill Brown’s earlier message implied, though, that no one had been injured.)

All I could do was wait until I got back to Huntsville to update the Web site -- which meant a 24-hour delay.

Saturday Night on the Town

Mark, Judy, Philomena, Garrett, Gladys, Bill, and I went to the Italian restaurant Ronaldos for dinner.  After the struggles of the day, it was good to just sit back and enjoy a good meal.  Following that, Bill, Philomena, Garrett, and I went to the local dog track.  Bill and Philomena bet on some dog races, and Philomena won a few dollars.  She said it was the first time she had ever won anything!

An Unexpected Sunday Surprise

The next morning, on my way to fill my ice chest, I saw Gene Young and Johnny Jones with Gladys as she was preparing to check out.  How did they get here?

Gene and Johnny said that the barge had docked back in Michoud at 6 AM, and they then loaded up their truck and drove the two hours back to Mobile to pick up Gladys.  They also said that the NASA van was already on its way back to Huntsville, which meant the Barge team would make it back before the Press team.  (So much for my idea of changing the HALO sign once again, to read “WELCOME BACK HALO”.)

They also mentioned that Greg was going to travel back with Bill Brown and videotographer Penn Stallard.  Greg and Bill were going to visit E. N. Bisso & Son in New Orleans to discuss the recovery of the balloon gondola.  They were also going to visit Captain Dean Scarborough of the recovery ship Sand Dollar, at his home in Mississippi.  Then they would meet up with Danny Carpenter to retrieve Bill’s loaned amateur radio equipment.

Gene and Johnny also gave me my first real facts about what happened on the barge.  Gene said that the payload canister popped off the rocket when it hit the barge deck, and shot forward due to the parachute spring and slid up the deck towards the cabin.  Amazingly, the rocket electronics were unfazed by the whole incident and kept operating.  Gene said “It was like a Timex watch, it took a licking and kept on ticking!”

Johnny Jones said that the balloon and gondola shot straight up and was visible throughout its flight.  He said he even saw the balloon pop when the white dot he was watching suddenly winked out.  Despite the accident, both were in good spirits.  Both raved about the delicious fresh King Mackerel they had for dinner the previous night.

Bill Axenroth and I had breakfast with Mark and Judy Wells, then headed back to Huntsville.  We stopped back at the Turkey Restaurant for another open faced sandwich, but otherwise the trip was uneventful.  I would like to thank Bill for providing his large van and for driving both ways.


This was quite a feat for an NSS chapter!  On behalf of HAL5, I would like to thank the members of my HALO Press Site team, for their dedication, patience, and smiles throughout the weekend.  Thank you Bill Axenroth, Ron Creel, Wade Dorland, Philomena Grodzka, Garrett Roberts, Judy Wells, Mark Wells, and Gladys Young.  It was a pleasure serving with you and I look forward to the next SL-2 launch attempt.

HAL5 owes a debt of gratitude to the hard-working members of GCATS.  Thank you Rick Lightcapp (KD4IYH), Red McDonald (KF4MH), Donny Newberry (W4EGF), Jeff Pecock (KD4GOE), Craig Warnol (KB5UEJ), and Andrew York (KF4FFN) for setting up and manning the Dauphin Island Sea Lab ground station.

Thank you Tom Curry (KD4KMW) for sailing with Captain Dean Scarborough aboard the recovery ship Sand Dollar.  Thank you Rob Mills (KC4MQU) for flying with Pilot Jim Jeninski aboard his search plane.

Thank you, especially, Gerald Regan (WA4CZC) for arranging for an air-conditioned classroom building at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab to be made available to HALO, to serve as both the ground station and Press Site, and for inviting us back.

And thank you, especially, Danny Carpenter (N4UXY) for providing the above 9 volunteers, for coordinating the entire amateur-radio support operation, for keeping in constant email and phone contact with the HALO team in the frantic weeks before the mission, for being the tour guide to the entire Press Site team (providing driving directions, recommending lodging and restaurants), and especially for inviting us back down to try again at a later date.

You and your team showed us the best Southern Hospitality and it was very much appreciated.  We look forward to working with you and the GCATS again in the future.  Ad Astra!

Ad Astra per Ardua -- “To the Stars by Our Own Hands”

For more information on Project HALO, contact HALO Project Manager Yohon Lo at (256) 658-2043 or via E-Mail at:

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This file was last modified on Saturday, 15-Apr-2017 13:19:44 EDT